Book cover

She is absolutely my favorite human rights activist and historical figure from the twentieth century. Who could not be in love with and awe of Fannie Lou Hamer?

A poor, black, Mississippi sharecropper with a sixth-grade education–it was rumored that Coretta Scott King, the refined, highly educated wife of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, once refused to share a platform with a woman of so little education–bedeviled two United States senators, a President, the Democratic Party, and every white supremacist in Mississippi with her uncompromising talk about racism in America. And that voice! She had a molasses-thick southern accent, and her voice had a frank and unapologetic tone that put the listener on notice that she was going to say what needed to be said and there would be no sugar coating. If Barbara Jordan sounded like God at His most prim and proper, Hamer sounded like your best sistah friend who reminded you she told you not to go out with that no good so-and-so in the first place.

Hamer and her family were sharecroppers who lived in almost feudal poverty; their house lacked running water and an in-door toilet. Contrast that with the fact that the dog of the plantation owner had his own bathroom! While her family had mostly toiled at the back-breaking profession of sharecropping, her father once managed to save enough money to purchase several wagons, cultivators, some plow tools, and mules. He even fixed up their house and bought a car. That was too much for white folks, who poisoned the trough the mules used. They all died, and the Hamers lost everything. Financially, they never recovered.

The youngest of twenty children, and her mother’s favorite, Hamer began picking cotton at age six. She even managed to go to school but had to leave at thirteen to help support her family. Because she could read and write, she also served as a timekeeper on the plantation, and picked up extra field work whenever and wherever she could. Her mother had taught the children to be decent and respect themselves, and to not be ashamed of their blackness. She also imbued Hamer with an unshakeable faith in God. It was her anchor, gave her preternatural courage, and served as a beacon and comfort for her fellow activists. Who could be paralyzed with fear after spending time with Mrs. Hamer? Countless times during the freedom movement she buoyed the spirits of her fellow workers by bursting into the songs she learned in the Baptist church; her favorite was This Little Light of Mine.

But even as a child, Hamer knew that the deplorable conditions in which blacks lived were wrong and soul killing, but wondered what she could do about them. And then she got her chance. In 1961 at the urging of her husband, Hamer sought medical help because of serious pelvic pain and heavy menstrual periods. The wife of the plantation owner referred Hamer to Dr. Charles M. Dorrough, who assured Hamer he could help her. Instead he gave her a total hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. Mississippi women referred to it as a “Mississippi appendectomy,” and it was very common. Yet Hamer only found out because a cook at the plantation overheard it being discussed. Hamer loved children and hoped to give them to her husband. She knew then what her work would be. Larson wrote, “The experience transformed her. Her fury fueled her long-simmering passion for change. . .she vowed never to be voiceless or silenced again.”

At the same time, the south was going through a slow and wrenching change. Civil rights activists, many of them black college students, had waged freedom rides on interstate buses and sit ins at restaurants, and the first chinks in the virulently segregated south began to develop. However, activists were slow to target Mississippi, a state known for its wanton brutality against blacks. When in 1962 they visited her church and asked for volunteers to register to vote, Hamer raised her hand. She said, “Had it up as high as I could get it. I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d a-been a little scared but what was the point of being scared. The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Larson describes in searing detail exactly what whites could and did do to Hamer and other black activists. In 1963 she and several others were arrested for trying to register to vote, and they were taken to jail. At the direction of the sheriff, two black prisoners savagely beat Hamer from head to toe. Mrs. Hamer was also raped–Larson appears to be the first biographer to report that–possibly by more than one man. Physically, she never recovered from that vicious beating. When the activists finally got out of jail, they heard that Medgar Evers had been assassinated. 

Larson gives us riveting descriptions of the many highlights of Hamer’s activism, some of which include her seminal speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1964; her participation in Freedom Summer; the trip that Hamer and ten other activists took to Guinea where they met President Sekou Toure; her continued activism, and unsuccessful attempts at gaining political office. Unbeknownst to many, Hamer was also involved in women’s rights and anti-poverty work, and she spoke against birth control and abortion. While she did not agree with how the freedom struggle moved toward black nationalism, she understood it and refused to turn her back on the young people who supported it. Even as the times changed and some of her projects failed, she kept the faith.

By the middle of the 1970s, the many concomitants of poverty, the brutal beating she received in jail, and the punishing pace of her activism began to catch up with her. Hamer suffered from diabetes, hypertension, extreme physical and mental exhaustion, and constant pain. She was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and had a mastectomy. Eventually, she found it difficult to do something as simple as combing her hair. Furthermore, many of the people she met during movement days were gone; some had dropped out or died, others had relocated, still others went into law, teaching, or politics. Hamer dearly missed their fellowship.

The cancer returned and spread, and she was dying. When that became known, accolades poured in; fund raisers and donations helped pay her medical expenses. She died on March 14, 1977. Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was only fifty-nine years old.

Larson’s Walk With Me is an exhaustively researched, highly engaging biography of the grass root organizer’s amazing life. She paints a superb, detailed, multi-layered portrait of Hamer; her exquisite prose makes extraordinary life fairly leap off the page. Walk With Me proves that beyond a doubt, Hamer was one of the most dynamic leaders in American history.

That little light of hers sure did shine.